Etymology, the study of the derivation of words, isn’t usually a world-changer. But on May 19, 1809, an etymological lecture delivered at the Institut de France in Paris, based on erroneous assumptions delivered as fact, would have a profound and enormously expensive impact that lasts to this very day.
The talk, by the linguist and orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, was titled “Dynasty of the Hashishyun and the Etymology of Their Name.” Its gist was that the name of a Shi’ite sect known as the Hashishyun (“Assassins”) was derived from its members’ use of hashish, an intoxicant made of marijuana resin.
Founded in 11th-century Persia by Hasan ibn al-Sabah, the Hashishyun sect, from the Ismaili branch of Shi’a Islam, was quite well known in France and throughout Europe. It had gained … (article behind sign up with email).